The Gentrification of Coconut Water

Mainstream coconut water, left, ($3 each; $2.50 sale price) vs. a can of traditional coconut water, right, ($1.69 each) at a local 7-Elevan store. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

One of my most memorable experiences growing up was when my dad would come home with bags of groceries from the local Filipino market. It was a way of learning about my cultural heritage -- through the filter of my own American-ness. I wasn't too fond of the salted duck embryo eggs, but I did take a liking to the large tin can of rolled wafer barquillios, the bags of Japanese-made shrimp chips and the tall cans of coconut juice.

For a kid weaned on Coke and 7-Up, the smooth, faintly nutty flavor of coconut juice -- technically the water found inside young coconuts - was somewhat exotic, yet totally palatable. And sometimes there was an added surprise: Tiny bits of coconut pulp at the bottom of the can that you can chew on and eat.

As an adult, though I've largely eschewed soda (unless it's part of a cocktail), I'm still quite fond of those 17-ounce cans of coconut water. Well-refrigerated, it's the perfect beverage on hot summer days like these; a refreshing thirst-quencher after a long walk or bike ride.

Until I saw it.

A couple years ago, I saw it. A large Hollywood office building swaddled in oversized advertising wrap -- this time, featuring pop singer Rihanna, hawking...coconut water.

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"Hmm, interesting," I thought at the time.

Aside from the celebrity endorsement, this new-fangled, fancily-packaged mainstream version of coconut water creates marketing buzz as a more-natural sports drink: it's packed with electrolytes, antioxidants and other contemporary buzzwords that translate into, "Hey, it must be healthy for you." Marketed under brand names like Vita Coco (made from Philippine coconuts) and Zico (made from coconuts from Thailand and Indonesia), they're also considerably pricier than their more humble predecessors. There's obviously a huge profit margin here. I'm quite sure the guy in Thailand who's sweating in the tropical heat and harvesting coconuts by hand with a machete isn't exactly driving around town in a Mercedes.

Several weeks ago, while finding myself wandering near the Fairfax District and craving some coconut water, I walked into the nearest corner liquor market and rummaged the refrigerated beverage section, looking for one of those tall cans containing that translucent nectar of the gods. At roughly $1 to $1.50 each, they're also a great buy.

Only, there were none of those familiar tall cans of liquid coconut goodness. The only ones available were the new-fangled paper cartons of this mass-marketed mainstream coconut water -- at roughly twice the price.

So it's come to this. My beloved coconut water has been gentrified.

Damn you, Rihanna.

With coconuts being a staple food in South and Southeast Asian cultures, cans of coconut water are easily found in various Asian ethnic markets around the Southland. It's heavily marketed and sold in the Latin American demographic; it's not uncommon to see the words 'Agua de Coco" on the same can as inscriptions in Thai or Vietnamese.

I shouldn't fret too much. Those 99 Ranch markets or corner ethnic groceries aren't going away anytime soon. Still, I wonder if someone in the traditional coconut water supply chain is going to bump up their prices to match their well-marketed, nouveau counterparts. Ah, such is the nexus of mainstream acceptance and capitalism.

In the meantime, I'm going to hide this can of lychee juice before they find out.

About the Author

Elson Trinidad is the Managing Editor of KCET's 50th Anniversary website and writes the "Transpacific Routes" and "Concrete and Chaparral" columns on KCET's blogs.
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